The Aggregate: Why iPhones and Hollywood Don’t Mesh // Hidden Messages in Animated Films
“Aggregate is a unique word. As a noun, it indicates different elements brought together in the same place. As a verb, it seeks to collect and assemble disparate pieces to create a more cohesive whole. This column seeks to do both of those things; breaking down some important stories in print journalism each week and presenting them in more bite-sized pieces.”
The Silicon Age of Hollywood
Real Life – Meghan Gilligan, “Hanging on the Telephone”
Real Life Magazine is a small, independent publication that focuses on the growing presence and shifting roles of technology in our daily lives. In this particular piece, Meghan Gilligan tackles a modern pop-culture conundrum: the lack of cell phones in movies. For many people, it is nearly impossible to get through the day without using a smartphone, however, our modern TV shows and movies are hesitant to depict this reality. Is it not cinematic enough? Is it too frightening? Meghan Gilligan addresses these questions, as well as others throughout this intelligent piece.
“Films set in today’s world are often stunted when it comes to representing what contemporary life looks like. This is because they tend to shy away from one of its defining aspects: phones. So much of life is now lived on and through screens, yet phones don’t typically get much visual attention. In the view of many filmmakers, the imagery of a screen on a screen presents certain obstacles to visual storytelling […] The popular film and television landscape is increasingly shaped by the void of contemporary stories that directors, screenwriters, and showrunners don’t want to tell.”
The stories Gilligan seems to be referring to are the stories that involve realistic depictions of phones. In the absence of more modern stories, a different kind of cinematic landscape unfolds before us:
“Instead, the current landscape is marked by pastiche, period pieces, and nostalgia-fueled revivals and remakes. Take the best picture nominees from the 2019 Academy Awards: six out of eight are period pieces, one is a remake (A Star is Born), and one revives a comic book character from the 1960s (Black Panther). Though the Oscars purport to highlight the cinematic excellence of the present, they more effectively demonstrate how attached we are to the past.”
“Simon Reynolds, in his 2010 book Retromania, attributes this attachment in part to “a crisis of overdocumentation.”
“Overdocumentation” is just another manifestation of the sensory overload we experience every day. Being so inundated by images and other indicators of the present, it is no surprise that movie makers and moviegoers may find some sort of respite in films or shows that allow them to forget the incessant pinging of their smartphones. Regardless, Gilligan argues that filmmakers of today have a cultural duty to serve, and documenting the present – even the mundane, less cinematic parts – is part of this responsibility.
“It’s an unavoidable reality that films that depict phone use tend to date themselves before they see theatrical releases. Perhaps this is a good thing. Documenting the elusive present restores some sense of historicity by giving audiences a recognizable past to remember for more than its styles.”
This will be an interesting evolution to experience as consumers. As a society, we may be forced to reflect more honestly on our relationship with technology if we are confronted by the reality of our excessive use in films or shows that we typically turn to in order to escape from “the present.”
The Real Reason That Disney Movies Have “Hidden Messages”
Slate – Jeffery Bloomer, “Why Everyone Thought Aladdin Had a Secret Sex Message”
This story definitely strikes a more silly tone than this column is accustomed to, but it made the cut this week in honor of the live-action remake of Aladdin and for the sake of some ‘90s nostalgia. In this piece, Jeffery Bloomer revisits some of the hottest middle school gossip of the early 2000s, and gives some seriously well-researched context to these rumors. He talks with industry professionals, and sheds light on the truth behind Disney’s *scandalous* history of “hidden messages” in their animated films:
“If you were a kid in the ‘90s, or even if you weren’t, the rumors were as familiar as a white vinyl VHS case: Did you know there’s a hidden phallus on the cover art for The Little Mermaid? And by the way, the minister definitely pops a boner during the wedding scene. Oh, and there’s a cloud spelling S-E-X floating over Simba in The Lion King. Perhaps most iconically of all, in Aladdin, as the titular prince tries to woo Princess Jasmine for a magic carpet ride from her balcony, he secretly whispers some lascivious words to the adolescent audience […] If you remember this as an innocent bit of childhood folk knowledge passed down by cool kids at sleepovers, it wasn’t always that way.”
The widespread panic around the issue started as you might suspect – mortified parents who were often backed by religious communities that were convinced that by forbidding their children to watch Disney films, they were saving their children from corruption. These were legitimate social concerns, and they took hold with astounding ferocity in many communities. Children told their mothers, mothers told their friends, friends told the pastor, and so on and so forth. How did it become middle school “folk knowledge” then?
“So really, the rumor started where it would go on to most memorably persist: in the horny minds of teenage boys and college kids. Then, Christian groups, in a panic reminiscent of fears about messages in backward-playing records, ran with their findings across the Bible Belt. Patient Zero was the adolescent male mind. […] If it’s easy to scoff at overheated teenage imaginations and religious busybodies, well, not so fast. Disney’s righteous denials of the era may be accurate, as far as they go, but the idea that animators would slip Easter eggs into movies—even sexually explicit ones—is not so ridiculous. They used to do it all the time.”
One of the most famous examples comes from an animated short that aired during the Academy Awards Ceremony in 1991:
“It featured Woody Woodpecker, who at the time was celebrating his 50th anniversary. The animators took advantage of the segment’s quick turnaround to surreptitiously slip in a number of hidden messages, some of which—including such lines as “Looking for satanic messages?”—are still visible in the official upload on the Oscars’ YouTube channel. According to [Tom] Sito, they also included the phone number of Michael Eisner, then Disney’s CEO, and something else: a covert F-bomb.”
This is just one example, and Bloomer provides many others. Disney faced backlash and made corrective action when it became necessary in certain cases, but the gossip-worthy idea of “subliminal messages” never disappeared entirely. Despite being a topic of heated discussion at middle school lunch breaks, it turns out that these “hidden messages” were nothing more than inside jokes among some of the world’s best and brightest animators. The cultural context of the earlier films informed much of the panic around the supposed hidden messages. Today, Easter eggs in film, television, or video games are often appreciated by fans and viewers; the Disney Easter eggs of the ‘90s are certainly much easier to laugh at.
Thanks so much for reading, and we’ll see you again next time.